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Fear and loathing at the end of the world
I don’t know about you, but this year has been a lot. Obviously, the pandemic is still ongoing, and that has had enormous repercussions. However, COVID-19 aside, what hit me this year was how much more catastrophic the environmental crisis felt. I’ve had visceral reactions to disasters in the past, but in 2021, it felt like a series of never-ending calamities. Talib Visram discovered that even the language around the environment is shifting to reflect the urgency of what’s going on. Terms like “global warming” and “climate change” are being pushed aside in favour of “climate catastrophe” and “climate crisis” in publications. I felt that the gravity of the crisis reached a new height this summer, and even after the season ended, the disasters didn’t stop. But to start, let’s go back to Summer 2021.
The entirety of summer felt like it jumped from disaster to disaster. At its height, Twitter user @shocks mused that we’re all going to experience climate change as a series of short videos until we’re the ones recording. As disaster bounced from one locale to another throughout the summer, that’s what it felt like. Personally, I experienced an unrelenting dread whenever I went outside and forced to confront the reality of our excess being manifest in drought and endless wildfire smoke. When there was a respite, feeds were replete with other’s apocalyptic videos of disasters around the planet.
Summer 2021 kicked off to a record breaking heatwave in western North America. Portland experienced its three hottest days on record in the span of a week, exceeding all-time records in Sun Belt cities like Houston. It got so bad that the Portland Streetcar (a far more useful alternative to the status quo than driving a Tesla) had to shut down because its electric cables were melting in the heat. Meanwhile, Lytton, British Columbia shattered Canada’s all-time hottest temperature record thrice over, until a peak of 49.6°C was reached. A wildfire followed, forcing the village’s residents to evacuate with little notice. Within days, footage from Lytton showed the town reduced to ashes and rubble. In British Columbia, there were nearly 500 deaths related to the heat wave. This series of interconnected events would set the tone for the summer. Researchers later found that North America’s late June heatwave was 150 times more likely to occur due to climate change.
Before anyone could catch their breath, more disasters kept rolling in. On June 30th, Zion National Park was hit with multiple flash floods which later forced the park to close. Then, in Pakistan, temperatures in the Indus Valley were exceeding wet bulb temperature limits. A wet bulb temperature is a measure of temperature and humidity when the body is no longer able to cool itself through sweating. At 100% humidity, these temperatures become lethal within hours. It’s expected that wet bulb temperatures will increase in frequency as the climate crisis worsens. While Pakistan’s heat wave was happening, an oil-rig gas leak set the Gulf of Mexico ablaze on July 1st. Throughout July, floods occurred seemingly everywhere, from New York to Austria to Mumbai to New Zealand, while heavy rains hit Inner Mongolia particularly hard, causing two dams to collapse . Siberia experienced the worst fires in 150 years as Western Canada’s forest continued to burn, producing eerie scenes from the Calgary Stampede’s denouement. The Amazon rainforest, one of the most important carbon sinks in the world, was later found to be emitting more carbon dioxide than it absorbs. Most of the Amazon’s emissions come from fires, often deliberately set to clear the land for farming and grazing.
It was, and still is, a lot to take in. Before long, the West Coast’s heat pushed east into the Prairies, and hit me in Manitoba. Looking back, Winnipeg felt like it had endless days of intense heat above 30°C, with many of those days filled with wildfire smoke. Turns out I wasn’t far off — Winnipeg had 34 days above 30°C this summer, when it normally has 13. July 2021 was also the driest on record for Manitoba. This wasn’t isolated to Manitoba either; Edmonton recorded its hottest mean summer temperature ever. Back in Winnipeg, excessive heat was clear anywhere that unmaintained plants grew — they wilted under the choked out smoke that made the skies look like perpetual sunset. The depressing conditions made it so overwhelming to leave the house and be confronted, everyday, with the reality of our society’s sins. It turns out it was my turn to record the apocalypse.
@queersatanic’s meme of Bart Simpson being informed that this isn’t the hottest summer of his life, but the coldest summer of the rest of his lifehaunted me for weeks following the June heat wave on the West Coast. All I kept thinking about was how extreme weather events are only going to get more extreme in the coming decades. The Oregon Climate Office tweeted in late June that “the past is no longer a reliable guide for the future”. In 20 years, we may look back on a year like 2021 as though it were a relatively stable year for the environment. Arwa Mahdawi has written that calling these extreme weather events “unprecedented” is becoming over-used and egregious. Extreme weather is no longer exceptional — it’s now the norm. Even if humanity stopped all pollution today, the effects of extant pollution are irreversible, and the carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere will remain in the biosphere for hundreds of years at a minimum. Although COVID-19 caused a temporary dip in emissions, 2020 was still the second warmest year on record, after 2016, and Earth is still on track to warm by 3°C this century, after already warming by 1°C.
Perhaps this is partially why Millennials are so nostalgic. Hauntology — the broken promises of a future never realized is “haunting” the present. I know this certainly isn’t the future I was promised growing up. Doomsday predictions aside, Y2K had an optimism in its iridescent apparel and semi-opaque electronics. Maybe this is why I kept playing Kylie Minogue’s 2001 album, Fever, throughout July. Its upbeat disco-pop encapsulated what the new millennium was supposed to be, and it acts as a surreal contrast with our reality.
As summer pressed on, catasrophes kept accruing. Myanmar floodedwhile Siberia’s heatwave caused the permafrost to thaw, releasing a “methane time bomb” . Brazil saw an unusual level of snow while many of the Andean mountains to the southwest lacked snowfall. Manitoban farmers sold their livestock due to a lack of feed. Off the Alaskan coast, algae appeared in marine environments, poisoning sea animals. In August, California’s Caldor fire scorched over 100,000 acres of land — a fire that was only able to be contained by the end of October.
As the seasons changed, things seemed to calm down. That is, until they didn’t. As 2021 rolled into its final months, catastrophes continued to accrue. Afghan families have been selling their daughters in order to not starve amidst a worsening drought. In the American Great Plains, “dust bowl” conditions emerged on the heels of unseasonably high temperatures, destroying communities with multiple tornadoes and a “freakish” windstorm. A powerful windstorm also struck the British Isles, leaving thousands without power for days. Back in Canada, Vancouver was literally cut off from the rest of the country as roads and bridges either collapsed, had mudslides, or became filled with water as British Columbia dealt with “biblical” floods. The same region that had experienced the highest recorded temperatures in Canada would, mere months later, be drowning.
There’s no way around it — 2021 felt apocalpytic and the depressing consequences of humanity’s sins were on full display. Perhaps that’s the lapsed Catholic in me talking, though. In reality, as divinely heavy-handed as the disasters may seem, God is not punishing us for these sins, nor is God going to save us from our doom. It is not Hell we see in the now-yearly infernos, it is our recklessness staring right back at us. Before our eyes, an Armageddon is already brewing, without divine intervention, as forces on the left push against the excess of capitalism literally destroying the planet. If those of us on the left don’t win, the consequence could not only be our end, but everyone’s.
Having said that, despite repeatedly saying “our,” each of us isn’t equally responsible for the climate crisis. We are all complicit, technically, due to inescapable structures and material conditions that guide an inherently unsustainable socioeconomic order. But humans themselves are not responsible for the climate crisis and not all of us are causing the same amount of harm. The true culprit, which is obfuscated by doomer notions not unlike the previous paragraph, is capitalism. It’s easy to get sucked into the belief that humanity is “evil” and it’s “all our fault” that the environment is collapsing before our eyes. The idea that we are all equally, individually responsible is a clever distraction which the atomizing forces of neoliberal capitalism have concocted.
As I will explain in the next section, while capitalism has begun to admit the harmful impacts it has on the environment, it can never truly resolve its criticisms. Instead, it resorts to distractions and gimmicks, like “eco-conscious” capitalism. These gimmicks make us feel as though, through reforming our consumptive habits from harmful products to “green” products, we will solve the climate crisis. However, due to the imperatives of capitalism, all consumption in some way requires exploitation at some point.
Under capitalism, we have no choice in our consumptive habits, despite what’s peddled by fans of the so-called “free market.” We need food, but if all food is produced unethically, and we live in a society that doesn’t afford us the tools to provide sustenance on our own, we’re forced to sell labour and submit to being exploited. This only further distances us from the ability to provide an alternative form of sustenance outside of capitalism, requiring our participation in unethical processes to survive. In many cases, former, non-capitalist ways of existing in the world have been beat out via colonialism and other forms of violence, and in ways that later entrench dependence on capitalist systems. While our capitalist society is responsible for climate change, this society is extremely unequal and the power that structures it is what’s ultimately responsible for it. This article will explore how capitalism tries and fails to address its criticisms, while also reframing the contemporary dogma around apocalypse, and provide solutions for mitigating further ecological degradation. Despite the despair, there are alternatives to the current slow-speed train heading towards a cliff.
Greenwashing and Ethical Consumption
While it may surprise some due to the prescribed doctrines within our capitalist democracies, capitalism itself is an authoritarian system. Think of the authority a boss, politician, or police officer has over people’s lives. A police officer acts as a state-sponsored control apparatus, with sanctioned violence to uphold an unjust legal system. Where a politician decides to provide funding or create policy can have tremendous impacts on the well-being of various socioeconomic groups. And, of course, a boss is quite literally allowed to tell workers what to do. Even though there are legal structures in place to remove abuse, abuse still happens because people fear losing their job if they don’t heed their boss’ requests. Samuel Stein discusses the “capitalist-democracy contradiction” inherent to our society. He notes that government structures will operate with “enough openness and transparency to maintain public legitimacy while ensuring that capital retains ultimate control” over those structures. If the system was truly free and open, people may demand the abolition of capitalist structures, but if it appears too closed off, people may revolt against a more obviously draconian system.
That said, capitalism’s authority appears more opaque and subtle, especially for those embedded within capitalist democracies. In fact, criticisms of it are welcome, because it allows capitalism to consume critiques rather than letting those critiques destroy it. Then, it regurgitates those critiques into reforms that don’t fundamentally address the root issue — capitalism itself — whose imperatives remain untouched in these reforms. This can be seen with the rise of so-called “eco-conscious” capitalism. When I say imperatives, I mean the things that universally govern capitalism, such as the need to maximize profit, pursue growth, and compete in the market.
The “eco-conscious” iteration of capitalism takes its detractors’ critiques of being harmful to the environment and rebrands certain parts of capitalism around an aesthetic of being ethical or ecologically-sensitive. It tricks us into thinking that if we buy the “right” products (locally-produced, recyclable, etc), we can stop the climate crisis. Not only is this still centred on new consumption, which requires further resource extraction, transportation, and production, it ignores the fact that the wealthy disproportionately impact the environment. We aren’t all equally responsible for ecological degradation. The richest 10% contribute about 50% of carbon emissions, while the poorest 50% only contribute 10% of emissions. Further, our lives are dictated by the richest — they created and now socially reproduce the capitalist world that has consumed most of the globe. Telling us that we all have to do our part to save the planet deflects the blame from those who’ve disproportionately destroyed it. Without our consent, we’re forced to work within this harmful system, consuming more and more, as a necessity of surviving within capitalism, which only furthers environmental destruction.
Jason Hickel has discussed how, with the evolution of capitalism, resources once shared in common were enclosed upon to produce artificial scarcity. This forced people to become workers and “participate in the juggernaut” in order to continue living. Today, this means that, for example, Londoners have to work even harder and longer to be able to afford the exorbitant cost of real estate, whose fictitious prices are the result of manipulation and speculation by capitalists. Hickel argues that this means people must sell their labour in order to access good quality housing. In turn, this forces everyone to participate in a system of expanding production, and the output of that production must find “an outlet in the form of ever-increasing consumption”. Therefore, breaking free of capitalism, rather than changing consumption patterns, is paramount to any real attempts at mitigating environmental catastrophe to manifest.
Today, there are seemingly endless options for “saving the planet” as firms shore up “green” or “eco-conscious” alternatives to traditional consumption. Nicole Aschoff’s The New Prophets of Capital, makes a strong argument against so-called “eco-conscious” capitalism. With regard to environmentalism, she notes that in recent decades, the “state-centered focus has shifted to the consumer-citizen”. This came with the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s, where the state was seen as intrusive and needed to be curtailed so that the market could “fix” things. It rose in popularity as the post-WWII boom stalled and crises swept through the 1970s. With neoliberalism, an ideology strongly centred around the individual sprouted, which worked to dismantle more collective understandings of society. Neoliberalism’s rise birthed a new level of atomization, such that it’s now up to the individual to fix the problems of ecological degradation and pollution. The way to fix this, according to the doctrine of neoliberalism, is by centring the individual as a consumer who makes choices. In essence, better worlds are possible if we buy the right product.
Aschoff makes the case against “eco-conscious” capitalism by attacking the fundamentals that are inherent to capitalism, whether branded as “green” or not. She argues that voting with our wallet doesn’t actually do much — a firm branding itself as environmentally-friendly “masks the essential need for firms to keep producing more”. Instead “eco-conscious” capitalism produces the smoke-and-mirrors effect of greenwashing. Greenwashing occurs when firms market products as “green” as a way of misleading consumers into buying into their products, hiding the true environmental cost of an item. It serves as a useful way for firms to corner another market, in this case the cohort of consumers concerned about environmental degradation, which allows firms to continue growing. Jevon’s Paradox illustrates how producing items in more energy efficient ways can be rendered pointless if it leads to an increase in consumption. Capitalism’s central pillars, including growth and profit, are diametrically opposed to concerns for the environment. Competition, another pillar of capitalism, requires firms branded as “green” to abandon their principles when faced with a competitive market. This forces a firm to focus on maximizing profit and growth to out-compete other firms, which is financed through greater and greater material extraction and consumption. This is why shifting from one product to another that’s branded as “eco-conscious” is unhelpful. The central pillars of capitalism are still being enforced. As Aschoff states, “the imperatives of the profit motive require that capitalism keep expanding and growing, consuming and destroying the planet as it goes” and that in capitalism, prioritization of consumers and investors over workers and the environment is required. Milton Friedman, one of the most influential thinkers on neoliberal ideology plainly stated that “the social responsiblity of business is to increase its profits”. He argued that firms don’t have social responsibilities like people do and that the only requirement of any businessperson within a firm is to ensure profits are maximized within the bounds of the legal system. Exercising consumer choice feels a lot easier than doing the hard work of organizing and endeavouring to dismantle the structures that produced this world of impending ecological collapse. However, if we are going to be serious about mitigating the worst effects of the climate crisis, hard work is required.
It’s clear that capitalism, both structurally and materially, is unable to meaningfully address its criticisms. As long as capitalism dominates our society, the environment will continue to be at ever-increasing risk of collapse because of the ways capitalism fundamentally works. However, it’s a clever system. It finds ways to consume its criticisms by reforming them into something that ostensibly addresses those criticisms without dismantling the central pillars of capitalism. Aschoff realized that critiques of capitalism can make capitalism stronger. By pushing capital to “evolve and temporarily resolve some of its contradictions,” it is preserved in the long term, which is why capitalism has been able to continue functioning despite many deep crises. We cannot afford to fall prey to the lure of these reforms, because it’s merely a farcical rebrand, and the ecosystem is still suffering.
There are many ways greenwashing occurs to make our consumptive habits appear good in the face of impending doom. One such way is via Global North countries offloading their emissions to the Global South. For example, within so-called “recycling” initiatives, items people believe are getting recycled are routinely being shipped to Southeast Asia for incineration. Many Global South countries have seen sharp rises in pollution and environmental destruction in recent decades, but this is often due to the Global North outsourcing its resource extraction and manufacturing to the Global South. That increased degradation and pollution exists to feed Northern, wealthier consumption. Even within Global North countries there is offloading. The bitumen retrieved from Alberta’s oilsands are increasingly being shipped to the United States for refinement, such that the emissions within Canada are reduced. This makes the oilsands appear greener, when in fact they’ve become dirtier since 1990, and the emissions are merely being obfuscated via greenwashing and offloading.
High-tech alternatives aren’t any better — the push for electric vehicles, wind turbines, and solar farms are dependent upon the exploitation of people and resources, including Rare Earth minerals, largely located in the Global South. For example, one Tesla requires more lithium carbonate than 10,000 cell phones do. Also, electric vehicles still necessitate the same sprawling, unsustainable, and demoralizing suburban developments that internal combustion vehicles do. As Philippe Gaulthier indicates, many renewable energy alternatives require vast tracts of land, often leading to the destruction of agriculture and forests, as well as the displacement of poor people. Wind turbines require 50 acres per megawatt, which, if you consider the average yearly energy growth of 2,000 Terawatts, means that if that energy growth was serviced by wind power, a geographic area the size of the British Isles would be needed each year to support it. While wind may be less “dirty” compared to coal power, if we switch platforms but keep everything else the same, we’re not going to get out of the climate crisis. Switching our consumer habits from old and environmentally devastating technologies to new and supposedly green alternatives allows for everything else to remain the same in terms of how we interact with the environment and the relations of production that exist in order to allow for this technology to exist.
Altogether, this means that the “green” reforms which purport to “fix” climate change don’t actually fix everything. These responses to critiques of capitalism uphold the status quo while purporting to be progressive. Those with the power and resources, who make the greatest impact on the environment, from their consumptive habits to being the architects and keepers of exploitative industries and neoliberal governments, have a vested interest in the status quo because they are the ones who benefit the most from the current order. The affluent aren’t going to be the ones most gravely affected by increasing droughts, floods, hurricanes, or wildfires — their access to the value by which everything is accounted for (money) means that they will be able to insulate themselves from the worst effects of their own actions. Thus, we cannot be serious about lessening the blow that’s already been set in motion by continuing to work within the same processes that caused environmental harm to begin with. Making everyone feel individually responsible obscures the hand that the wealthy have in destroying the environment. Further, green-branded alternatives still largely function within the existing globalized neoliberal ideology of colonizing the resources of the Global South to support growing consumption in the North (which is explained in greater detail below). Considering this, “eco-conscious” capitalism is a marketing gimmick designed to distract us from meaningful change, because such change would have to be anti-capitalist.
Endless Capitalism and Unequal Harm
Capitalism has spread itself all over the world. That’s how it works, by necessitating growth and finding new markets to exploit. Western colonial projects dismantled pre-existing Indigenous ways of living that were and continue to be more harmonious vis-a-vis the environment. Thus, colonized nations were forced to become dependent on an economic system that disproportionately impacts them in negative ways. Their labour is exploited, their resources depleted, and they are more adversely affected by the climate crisis. The universality of capitalism feels especially present in the post-Cold War world we now inhabit, where capitalism is no longer challenged in a significant way. The supremacy of capitalism is what Mark Fisher framed in Capitalist Realism. By “capitalist realism,” Fisher references to the notion he attributes to Jameson and Zizek, “that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”; it is, essentially, the only “realistic” option. Fisher elaborates by stating “capitalism subsumes and consumes all of previous history” and turns everything into something that exists in relation to monetary value. We are led to believe that even if things seem dire under capitalism, at least it isn’t as bad as Stalinism. In other words, a system under which “all existence is evaluated in terms of money alone” may be unjust, but the hope of anything better is a “dangerous illusion”. In fact, criticism is widely accepted — Zizek pointed out that anti-capitalism is widely disseminated within capitalism, such as the perennial Hollywood villain being the big, bad corporation. Fisher noted that Kurt Cobain, in his “dreadful lassitude” knew that “nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV”. Indi Samarajiv discusses how “capitalism will take your rebellion, print it on a t-shirt, and sell it back to you”. This can also be seen in relation to environmentalism. While capitalism and environmentalism may be antithetical, “climate change and the threat of resource-depletion are not being repressed so much as incorporated into advertising and marketing”. Fisher, like Aschoff, believed that capitalism’s “growth fetish” is “primed to destroy the entire human environment”. He expressed how the notion that capitalism as the only realistic option has constrained thought and action. Capitalism has become ubiquitous and all-consuming; even so-called communist nations like Mainland China have capitalistic tendencies.
Similarly, Jason Hickel has referred to our current economic system as a “death cult”, due to the increase in both human and non-human death arising from anthropogenic climate change and ecological breakdown. Extinction rates are up to a thousand times greater than in pre-industrial times. However, as Hickel explains, “not all humans are equally responsible for this crisis” — 92% of excess emissions have been caused by the planet’s richest nations. This is crucial for calling out the often eugenicist ideology of certain wealthy individuals supposedly concerned for the environment. Bill Gates has imbibed the notion that the planet is overpopulated, and so the corollary is that humanity must curtail its population. In a 2012 video interview, Gates mentions how the bulk of population growth in the coming decades will be in the Global South. He indicates that this will put tremendous pressure on those countries’ ability to provide food for this growing population while also protecting the environment. Gates suggests that a way out of this is to continue systems of imperial imposition upon the Global South by providing resources to encourage smaller family sizes, as he views this as an “acute problem”. However, his concern is misplaced and problematic — workers already produce enough food for over 10 billion people, with the rate of global food production increasing faster than global population growth. The real problem is not population growth in the Global South, it is ultra-wealthy and powerful individuals such as Gates. There is unequal distribution of resources alongside exploitation of workers who provide the functioning of society while they’re deprived of the fruits of their labour. Those with the means to exploit are disproportionately to blame for the climate crisis. As George Monbiot said, population panic lets the wealthy off the hook for the devastation they inflict upon the environment.
While those who don’t occupy the upper echelons of society cause less environmental harm, they are most impacted. This was seen in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, wherein many of the city’s poor and racialized were simply unable to afford to leave before Katrina made landfall in late August. The poor often lacked a car, couldn’t afford a motel, and were less likely to have people to stay with outside New Orleans. Furthermore, many were waiting on paycheques to arrive on the first of the month in order to afford an exit from the city, days after Katrina made landfall. Disproportionate environmental effects on those most marginalized were also seen in Vancouver this year. During the June heat wave, areas with the greatest incidence of heat-related deaths were in areas with the least amount of trees and most amount of concrete, often areas of higher unemployment. Contrastingly, wealthier areas were literally cooler, due to more trees. Again and again, it is shown that those who contribute the least to ecological destruction are most affected by it.
Additionally, Neil Smith argued that the concept of a “natural disaster” is itself a misnomer because it obscures the political and social divisions that allow for such events to be so disastrous. Placing the blame on nature lets states, developers, landlords, and other exploitative aspects of the capitalist economy off the hook. For Smith, disasters are “always co-productions in which natural forces…work together with social, political, and economic forces”. If a disaster strikes and damages low-income communities but leaves wealthy communities intact, then what is disastrous depends on your socioeconomic standing. What occurred in New Orleans in 2005 and in Vancouver in 2021 exemplify this. Wealthier New Orleanians were able to escape the city and upper-income Vancouverites live in areas with cooler temperatures. The selectivity of disaster was also dramatized in the 2019 film Parasite. In it, a massive storm causes the film’s main working class family to spend the night in an emergency shelter after their home flooded, while the wealthy family they worked for had their camping trip canceled. The wealthy family decided to throw a party in their backyard afterwards, oblivious to what the family working for them endured, turning the disaster into a celebration.
Amongst these notions, it’s very easy to get stuck in a nihilistic mindset captured by the worn-out meme of there being no ethical consumption under late capitalism. After all, there’s no significant difference in carbon footprint between those who consume products branded in an “eco-conscious” way and those who do not. This makes it compelling to believe that it is futile to strive for any action that addresses climate change because it “doesn’t matter” what we do, we will still be working within a system of exploitation and harm. However, thinking within this capitalist realist ideology is a great way for capital to continue consuming the planet unabated, even if it admits there are flaws in its system. As previously indicated, capitalism has no problem consuming critiques and spitting out distractions from the real problem. Stating that there is no ethical consumption doesn’t mean that someone’s consumptive habits don’t matter and therefore it isn’t a license to do whatever you want, regardless of the harm caused. Instead, it should be read as a call to imagine alternatives that are ethical and to work towards those. Imagining alternatives can be difficult, and enacting meaningful change will be even harder. Although no one person can single-handedly fix the injustices caused by capitalism, both to the environment and to humanity, organizing collectively can make it possible to dismantle its structures of oppression and destruction. As well, minimizing carbon footprints within capitalism, if done at a large scale, isn’t necessarily bad either as a short-term goal on the road to alternatives. However, minimizing such footprints cannot operate within consumption derived from new extraction and production. Instead of buying an electric car, walking more, or utilizing less energy intensive modes of transport, like cycling, are better alternatives. The bike you buy should not be replaced frequently and ideally could be bought second-hand, so as to not fuel demand for new production.
The Apocalypse Began 500 Years Ago
The recent onslaught of disaster may cause many of us to feel as though an apocalypse is imminent. And yet, for many people in the world, the catastrophes that are becoming more and more prevalent have already been occurring for centuries. For many Indigenous peoples, the end of the world has already occurred. Potawatomi scholar Kyle Whyte argues that Indigenous peoples currently occupy a world that their ancestors would likely have characterized as dystopian. “Settler colonial campaigns…have already depleted, degraded, and irreversibly damaged the ecosystems” that Indigenous ancestors had long-lasting relationships with. In 1521, the Spanish conquered the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, aided by a smallpox outbreak that reduced the city’s population by 40%. Afterwards, the Spanish drained the lake the city was surrounded by and built Mexico City over top of Tenochtitlan’s ruins. While Mexico City continues to sink into the former lake bed, it is a testament to the domination of European colonizers upon Indigenous peoples. In fact, throughout North America, colonists introduced invasive species and overhunted others.
In what is now called Canada, there’s a long history of the colonial government entering into treaties with First Nations that were routinely broken and used as a means to dispossess and degrade the lands such nations inhabited. One means by which dispossession occurred was to destroy Indigenous communities in order to make way for industrial projects, such as in Northern Manitoba in the construction of hydroelectric dams after the Second World War. In other cases, First Nations communities were degraded by being geographically proximate to industrial projects, such as Grassy Narrows First Nation in Ontario. The First Nation has dealt with mercury contaminated water due to a paper mill upstream of their water source that dumped 9,000 kilograms of mercury into the English-Wabigoon River, poisoning the river’s fish, which the community is dependent upon for food. Grassy Narrows isn’t alone in having contaminated water systems — today there are still 60 boil water advisories for First Nations within Canada. Previously, residential schools were also set up to “kill the Indian in the child” and various cultural activities, such as the potlach ceremonies on the northwest coast of North America, were banned until the 1950s. In Winnipeg, as in many Canadian cities, an urban apartheid emerged with the influx of Indigenous peoples into the city after the Second World War (often spurred by aforementioned efforts to dispossess). Indigenous peoples were de facto not welcome south of Portage Avenue, as businesses would refuse service and most landlords would not rent to them. This left only the most deteriorated places with the least amenities as places Indigenous peoples would be allowed to inhabit.
Some have argued that the “first great modern extinction” occurred when European colonizers “unleashed the forces of settler colonialism, slavery, white supremacy, and capital accumulation” onto colonized territories. Writing collective Out of the Woods spoke of the “ordinary disaster” of unending and normalized racial capitalism. The rise of Western countries was directly dependent upon the colonization of Indigenous lands, the enslavement of non-Europeans, and the extraction of materials. This continues today with the neocolonial dichotomy between the Global North and South, wherein the former is dependent upon the material dispossession and domination over the latter.
All of this is to suggest that if you, like me, have only now been facing a sense of impending doom and dystopia, then you’ve been fortunate thus far, because this kind of harm has been occurring for centuries. The devastating imperialist structures that capitalism utilizes are not new. While the climate crisis is accelerating in frightening ways, whole environments have been getting destroyed for many centuries. The framing of the contemporary climate crisis as new ignores what’s been done and continues to occur to Indigenous peoples and their environments. Just because the crisis has now gone mainstream due to it beginning to affect more privileged cohorts doesn’t mean it is novel. It’s merely a ramping up of processes that began with the onset of European imperialism over 500 years ago.
It’s also important to indicate that, despite what it may seem like, there will not be a singular apocalyptic event in which all of humanity and the entire biosphere alongside it is annihilated. The so-called “end of the world” due to climate change won’t be a single event. Rather, it’ll be a “rolling apocalypse and a permanent condition of reality”, as this past year has given us a taste of. Hurricanes, wildfires, droughts, floods, and tornadoes will intensify while crop failure, species extinction, and precarious migration will ramp up. Hollywood has done a great job of creating the concept of the one Earth-ending event in our collective imagination. Therefore it’s easy to get sucked into this idea that at some point the entire planet will collapse altogether, especially with how normalized abnormal weather conditions are becoming. But the reality is climate change will, even if we stop emitting carbon tomorrow, be something the entire ecosystem has to deal with for centuries, creating chronic instability, but never completely destroying everything. For a more accurate portrayal of this in film, the 2006 film Children of Men is better than Hollywood blockbusters. It shows a near-future world in which humanity has descended into chaos following global infertility. But, the film shows people still going about their day, doing regular things, while the bleak circumstances surround them. Kai Heron argues that extinction isn’t even the worst that could happen — “it’s much more likely that climate chaos will intensify” and that “instead of a final collapse, we should fear a world of unfathomable suffering”.
In addition to an ongoing climate crisis, humanity will persist in some way. Just as the entire biosphere won’t implode in a grand apocalyptic event, humanity won’t entirely collapse either. Kenneth Segilson explains this through looking into the Maya civilization. He states that there’s a widespread belief that the Maya disappeared after a cataclysmic “collapse” when in truth, over 6 million Maya live in Mesoamerica today. Based on his own research, Segilson argues the Maya were able to adapt their resource usage in order to survive despite climactic crises and ongoing colonial genocide. This indicates that, even with an ongoing ecological crisis, it can be assumed humanity will survive in some way. Whether we survive in such a way that includes everyone or merely allows for a privileged few to cordon themselves off on private city-states will depend on whether we continue to live within an economic system that allows for excessive comforts of a few to be enjoyed on the backs of a large, exploited tranche.
What is to be done?
With that out of the way, you may be wondering what is to be done in order to prevent a worsening of the climate crisis. Any solution worth its salt will be required to be anti-capitalist in nature. Capitalism has shown repeatedly that, through its imperatives, it’s unable to reform itself into meaningfully addressing environmental issues. We must be diligent in ensuring our solutions are not co-opted and muddied by capitalism, as has been seen with “eco-conscious” capitalism. “Eco-conscious” capitalism has tried to find numerous solutions to the climate crisis that promote a form of green growth, recognizing the harm current systems of capital accumulation have on the environment. However, for growth to occur, as capitalism requires, greater and greater levels of material extraction are required to service rising energy demand. As well, the growth fetish of capitalism obscures the increase in materials and energy behind it, making growth appear “immaterial” when it really isn’t. Current energy demand in the Global North is already four times above sustainable levels. Clearly, growth is a problem, even though capitalism demands growth. This causes some to advocate for “high-tech fairytales” involving a miracle deus ex machina to swoop in and save the day. However, once again, God isn’t going to save us; instead we must find the courage to save ourselves. These fairytales often stipulate that if we switch over to a renewable form of growth, generally with emergent or non-existent technology (for example, fusion power), the capitalist system we exist within can continue unabated. But energy consumption still requires the exploitation of resources, whether it’s cobalt mining in the Congo for electric vehicles or the extraction of bitumen in Alberta for internal combustion engine vehicles. As Kallis et al have discussed, there is no technological fix that will allow everyone on earth to have “the material standard of living currently enjoyed by a minority at high cost to others”. In other words, if everyone lived like an American millionaire, the planet would be completely exhausted of its resources.
With all of that in mind, there is one framework that addresses all of the environmental issues capitalism spawns — degrowth. While degrowth may lack the optimistic plastic aesthetics I was promised growing up, it offers something truly revolutionary. Degrowth is anti-colonial and anti-capitalist by its very nature. Again Jason Hickel, a noted degrowther, has important points to make in favour of it. He states that the cause of our ecological crisis is quite literally capitalism. In The Case for Degrowth, Kalis et al explain how, in response to ongoing crisis, degrowth works towards a system based around modest living and shared abundance. For example, instead of everyone having their own household set of home improvement tools, a communal set of tools could be shared within a community. While the contemporary political rhetoric leads us to believe that growth is necessary for an increased well-being, the reality indicates otherwise. Increased socioeconomic polarization, exploitation, and ecological destruction are all occurring while the rich get richer . Fixating on growth has not solved poverty, if anything it’s made things worse. The comforts enjoyed by the wealthy are dependent upon the exploitation of people elsewhere. Growth is derived from investing surplus to create greater surplus. Capitalists obtain surplus revenue by selling a product for more than the cost of labour and production, so access to cheap labour, materials, and energy allows for greater surplus revenue. As previously mentioned, growth is required for firms to out-compete rivals and to maintain a footing in the market.
Meanwhile, Costa Rica indicates a deviation from the doctrine of growth. The country launched a Gross National Happiness index as an alternative measure to the more common Gross Domestic Product (GDP) model. The country has a GDP per capita rate eighty times lower than the United States, but it has a higher life expectancy and access to universal healthcare and education. It is also one of the “happiest” nations in the world.
Scaling back excessive consumption and shifting the focus away from economic growth and towards societal and ecological well-being is sorely needed. While dialing back the economy may result in job losses, if the working week is shortened, necessary labour could be shared with more people, and if society focuses on providing for human well-being via social programs, then it won’t be catastrophic. Capitalism has shown repeatedly that the most it can do when it imbibes criticisms is give us distractions. Degrowth is the best environmental framework to imagine alternatives to and concretely tackle the harms of capitalism that have put the planet in a state of ecological decay.
However, it’s important to note that degrowth isn’t an imposition on everyone. A common misconception of degrowth is that it advocates for scaling back the economy everywhere, on everyone, even poor people whose needs already aren’t being met at their current consumption levels. However, because degrowth is focused on curtailing excessive consumption, it does not apply to people or places where consumption is not excessive. Rather, degrowth is focused on the actions of the Global North, especially middle and upper income folks. It doesn’t advocate for taking money from the pockets of workers in one area to fill the pockets of workers elsewhere. Fundamentally, degrowth recognizes that the bulk of environmental harm is being caused by the Global North while the consequences of that harm “fall disproportionately upon the Global South”. The excessive carbon footprints in the Global North are entirely depended upon those countries colonizing the Global South. For example, rainforest destruction in Indonesia for palm oil plantations is occurring in order to meet Global North demands. In fact, since 1960, the world’s wealthiest countries have drained $152 trillion from the Global South. In 2012 alone, the Global South received $1.3 trillion in aid and investment from the North while the Global North extracted $3.3 trillion from the South. For Hickel, this indicates that “poor countries are developing rich countries, not the other way around”. The existing neocolonial paradigm that allows for the rich to benefit immensely is built upon the extraction of resources, dispossession of land, and devaluation of labour and minerals in the Global South. For instance, Cobalt miners in the Congo, including at least 40,000 children, are paid about $3 per day for grueling 12 hour shifts that run the risk of miners contracting respiratory diseases from polluted working environments. Due to its awareness of the exploitative colonial dichotomy between rich and poor, degrowth is essentially “a demand for decolonization”. Through a decline in energy use in the North and raising energy use in the South to levels that are able to meet basic needs, degrowthers believe there will be a “convergence at a level consistent with ecological stability”. Some have expressed concern regarding a decline in living standards if degrowth is applied, but the world already produces enough for everyone, and yet inequality continues to increase. There is a surplus of resources that disproportionately go to the wealthy while the poor continue to not have their needs met, including access to clean drinking water and food. For example, Jeff Bezos has the wealth to end world hunger. Instead, he’s using his wealth to get into a dick measuring contest with billionaires via a penis-shaped rocket that put him in Low Earth Orbit, while the planet is dealing with disaster after disaster. Rather than continuing this gross negligence, degrowth calls for equitable sharing of resources at more sustainable levels. Likewise, decolonization via a reduction in consumption among the rich will free colonized nations to support themselves in their own ways, rather than being dependent on Northern capital that devalues them anyway.
Nathan Gardels spoke of the problem with obsolescence being baked into the things we use daily. In his words, “we design waste into our products”. Our homes are being built both bigger and cheaper, while our gadgets are meant to stop being usable after a short amount of years. In the United States, the most popular private vehicles are SUVs and pick-up trucks, much larger than the standard cars which were more popular 30 years ago. Our phones have had increasing amounts of materials put into them while they are replaced every few years. The last two smartphones I used were purchased because the one I was already using had ceased normal functionality. Sure, there’s been some nice technological improvements in the years since I got the first phone, but I wouldn’t have replaced it had it not been for some odd battery issues, because it worked well and served my needs. However, for companies like Apple, it’s better to plan obsolesence into products to ensure that sales continue to grow, because the year-to-year differences in new iPhones aren’t significant enough to entice people into upgrading. Discussing the ways in which our products become obsolete quickly so as to force new consumption opens the door for realizing alternatives. Cell phones are useful and have integrated themselves into most people’s lives. Degrowth doesn’t call for the abolition of cell phones, but, in transitioning away from a system predicated on endless growth, phones would be required to use materials that are built to last to justify the material extraction and manufacturing processes that create them. This logic can also be applied to televisions, computers, cameras, and other everyday technology. Other technology, such as automobiles, could be mostly replaced by shared transportation alternatives, such as trains and buses, or by well-built personal bicycles. Housing can be built smaller, with better quality materials meant to last, and with more environmentally positive elements. For example, 30% of energy in a building is lost through its windows. Installing triple-pane windows help curb the amount of energy that normally escapes through windows. In a degrowth economy, not all of the things we’ve become accustomed to having need to be removed. Instead, the items we use need to be justified, built to last, and have the least exploitation and destruction possible.
Gardels also notes that there isn’t a “silver bullet” that will magically ensure the biosphere is maintained; instead, we need to consistently do a multitude of smaller actions that in aggregate will make a big difference. Structurally, a lot of this falls on the state and capital, as they’re the ones reinforcing a growth-centric system, requiring us to buy products that are not meant to last. But again, that doesn’t mean we should be reckless. Kalis et al state that the first action is taking personal action against excessive consumption. In addition to organizing and both putting pressure on and dismantling the structures of power that currently exist, we can still be less excessive with our consumption. It won’t solve everything, but at the end of the day, if everyone decided to live in smaller houses and fly less often, it would make a difference in terms of our collective ecological footprint. As Allegra Chiarella indicates, trends working against consumption have been seen on the left as “too individualistic”, but we shouldn’t let that stop us from working together to disrupt consumptive ideology, which does also include us individually taking actions to reduce consumption. In doing meaningful reductions to ecological impacts, we must be diligent and stay clear of capitalist tactics that attempt to reform consumption with “green” alternatives. In the Global North, it isn’t through amending our consumption that we will be able to alleviate the crisis, it is through drastically curtailing it.
Radically altering our socioeconomic and political systems away from capitalism can seem daunting. One way we might be able to imagine the entrance of radical alternatives is in what the Out of the Woods collective calls “disaster communism”. They note that in the aftermath of a disaster, communities emerge which offer a glimpse into potential new worlds. Mutual aid networks bloom where shared tools and skills are collectively in abundance and shared for survival while new forms of solidarity are cemented. The problem is that segments of capitalism benefit from disaster communities as they help bring society back the status quo quicker. Therefore, instead of the easily co-opted community, the collective calls for something more transgressive and transformative — disaster communism. While communism is premised on material abundance via capitalist production, disaster communism is focused on the abundance found in the collective community — “in other words, in the collective response to disaster, we glimpse a real movement which could yet abolish the present state of things”. It’s in response to disaster that new communities and ways of living can be imagined and brought into being, things which previously would have seemed farfetched. As climate change continues to create cracks in the status quo, moments wherein the status quo is destabilized could be seized. In that seizure, the existing structures and material conditions of harm could be destroyed. This presents a window into which alternative worlds posited by degrowth could be realized. In struggle we may find new hope for a better world.
If this all feels overwhelming, that’s understandable. But remember, generations of colonized peoples have already been enduring apocalyptic conditions. Being cognizant of that can lead to greater solidarity towards decolonization and working to move away from environmentally harmful systems. Regardless of how scary the headlines appear, and how hopeless it all can feel to make a difference, we must be up for the daunting task of dismantling oppressive and destructive structures that cause so much pain and suffering. It is projected that by 2050, 1 in 50 people will be “environmentally displaced”. But people are already being displaced and have been for centuries by the unjust power structures and material conditions of capitalism. Solutions which aim to reform capitalism into a more “eco-conscious” brand only distracts us from the fact that capitalism cannot fix the crisis it started. Instead, we need to reorient society towards the well-being of its inhabitants rather than the needs of capital accumulation. This is, of course, not just something that affects humans. The North American heat wave this past summer is responsible for an estimated one billion deaths of seashore wildlife living along the shores of the Salish Sea. Earth is entering its sixth mass extinction event, such that by the end of this century, one in six species may be threatened with extinction. If we want to ensure that the kaleidoscope of flora and fauna which currently call this planet home continue to have a place in it, then we need to do better. These species don’t deserve to die off due to capitalistic negligence. Further, marginalized people in the Global South as well as in the North, who will be most afflicted by climate change, should not continue to deal with the worst consequences of this ongoing crisis because of the selfish actions of those at the top. Undoing these entrenched systems that are designed to cause so much hurt will not be easy, but we must not let that deter us. If we do, the consequences that are already apparent will only dig themselves in further. A better world is possible and we owe it to ourselves and all the living things on this planet to make it happen. Get organizing, support marginalized communities, volunteer, donate, show up, and do whatever you can because the world can’t wait.
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Kallis, G; Paulson, S; D’Alisa, G; Demaria, F. The Case for Degrowth. Page 120.
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Hickel, Jason. What does degrowth mean? A few points of clarification. 2020. Page 5.
Hickel, Jason. The anti-colonial politics of degrowth. Political Geography, Volume 87, 2021, Article 102344.
Hickel, Jason. The anti-colonial politics of degrowth. Political Geography, Volume 87, 2021, Article 102344.
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